Meet The Project: “Thank You, Enjoy”
By Lauren Lattimore, Program Associate at Fractured Atlas
What is Thank You, Enjoy?
Thank You, Enjoy is a photojournalism project and exhibition that tells the stories of immigrants who work in the Chinese restaurant industry in New York through pictures and detailed bilingual captions. It challenges people to consider the working conditions and personal sacrifices of Chinese immigrants, as well as what it means to be American.
Can you tell us what inspired you to create this exhibit?
This project started with a simple contradiction: If Chinese takeout is so popular in America, why do we know so little about the people who work in the industry? I was also drawn to this topic because of my Chinese heritage (my mother is Chinese American and grew up in Los Angeles’ Chinatown), and my perspective is informed by my own experiences in China and living in New York’s Chinatown. I wondered what life was like for the people who worked in these places — takeouts that seemed to populate every other block in my neighborhood at the time, Crown Heights, Brooklyn. How did reality line up with their expectations and dreams of America? In the process of researching, reporting, and creating the exhibition, I started to ask questions about my own family’s history. To my surprise, I learned from relatives that my great grandfather, Gee Kee Ward, who immigrated to the US from Taishan, China in 1915, had himself owned and operated a Chinese restaurant in Los Angeles during the 1940s. In some ways, I feel the universe was calling me to this project.
What was the most interesting story you heard from the Chinese Immigrants you interviewed?
The thing that shocked and angered me the most was the stories I heard from delivery cyclists. Each of them seemed to have an endless stack of tickets and talked about how they dreaded the police because they felt they could be stopped at any time for any reason. One man recounted being handcuffed when he couldn’t provide an ID. Another showed me a ticket with violations totaling more than $2,000. At a NYC DOT meeting this past spring, a cyclist testified that he had been stopped 4 times in the month of May and received 7 tickets. There is no question in my mind that delivery cyclists are over-policed and taken advantage of because they often do not speak English and have a difficult time disputing tickets.
How open were the restaurant workers to do this process?
Approaching restaurant workers and gaining trust with them so that they felt comfortable enough to speak with me about their experiences and be photographed was a time-intensive process. When I first started working on the project, I would simply walk into takeouts and explain what I was doing in Chinese. Sometimes I left a flyer with a QR code for my WeChat screen name (a popular Chinese messaging app). I had limited success with this method, though some of the workers I met this way eventually did talk to me. In the case of one takeout, Happy Wok, I just kept showing up, so I think I finally wore down the owner and he realized I meant no harm. I had more success meeting people through grassroots advocacy groups like Chinese Staff and Workers Association and Biking Public Project, which advocates for delivery cyclists. Restaurant workers who are engaged in activism tend to be more open to speaking about their experiences because part of their goal is raising awareness and solving problems within the industry. And once you know a few people, they start to introduce you to others.
What’s something that audiences will find surprising about their lives?
One thing that came up a lot when I explained that I was collecting stories from restaurant workers was the idea that they didn’t have any stories to tell or at least not stories that seemed interesting or valuable from their point of view. “What stories? I don’t have any stories. I just work everyday,” a takeout owner told me. The other thing that surprised me, even though I had an inkling of it when I started the project, was the fact that many service workers have so little contact with other Americans and are often socially isolated. While many immigrants working at restaurants and takeouts start families and slowly build a new community here, there are also people who have few close relationships and little time outside of work to build a social life. One cook said I was his first American friend in 15 years of living in the US.
What has been the most fun part about this process?
The best part of this experience has been getting to know people on a personal level and being able to share and amplify their stories to a larger audience of Americans. For example, it was really fun to have Jackie Lee, a delivery worker who is a photographer himself, visit the exhibition and see the photographs I took of him.
What impact do you think your exhibition will have on its viewers?
During the first installation of the exhibition that was held in NYC this past January-February, many visitors told me they learned a lot about the political issues affecting the workers from the photos and captions I put together. For instance, the grey area around the legal status of e-bikes in New York has been an ongoing issue for delivery cyclists that affects their daily livelihood in a significant way. I think I succeeded in getting others fired up about that issue. My hope for the exhibition as it travels to Boston this fall and eventually to the West Coast is that it not only educates people about the issues at stake, but also moves them to consider the hardships and sacrifices of these workers. Like many immigrants, they’re here chasing the American Dream.
Any advice on how we can all appreciate and interact with this culture differently the next time we order takeout?
Communication in English can sometimes be difficult, so a friendly smile and patience go a long way. And tip generously if you can, especially when the weather is bad.
About Lauren Lattimore
Lauren Lattimore is a proud native Detroiter with a B.A. in Communication Arts from Eastern Michigan University. In 2013, she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree in Acting from the New School for Drama. She has since been in productions at the MCC Theatre, Columbia University-Mainstage, and The New Brooklyn Theatre. Although performing is a great love of hers, chocolate is her kryptonite. In her spare time she can be found listening to music, catching up with her DVR, or discovering a new restaurant in the city!